Market East sign district bill likely on hold until fall

May 25, 2010
By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The hot debate over whether to allow larger, flashier signage on East Market Street has been put on summer simmer.

First District City Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced Bill No. 100013 in January, in hopes that allowing different kinds of advertising might help the city’s efforts to pump more life into that corridor, where development has languished. See previous coverage.

But opponents of the bill – largely organized by Mary Tracy, executive director of SCRUB, an organization that fights blight in public spaces – are concerned that DiCicco’s proposed changes would hamper the ability of the city or concerned citizens to prevent just about any billboard or advertising wrap from going up anywhere in the city.

A Rules Committee hearing on the bill that had been scheduled for earlier this month was cancelled, and it is unlikely to be rescheduled until after council’s summer recess. Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger said his office asked DiCicco to hold the bill and make adjustments.

From the beginning, DiCicco said that while he believes sign rules changes are needed to help Market Street, he was willing to listen to suggestions and make changes to the bill. DiCicco is going to take time over the summer to do just that, said spokesman Sean McMonagle.  DiCicco will be meeting with SCRUB and potentially other interested parties to get feedback, McMonagle said.

“Frank still wants to work on it,” McMonagle said. “He figures there are enough issues out there where a delay isn’t a big deal. This is something worth waiting for.”

Greenberger said his office agrees in concept with DiCicco’s idea to allow different kinds of signs on East Market Street to liven things up.  But the specific language in the bill worried planning, too. “We had concerns about unintended consequences, about what could be allowed to happen” if the bill were to be passed as written, he said.

In an interview earlier this year, the councilman said the bill has a specific target, creating a commercial advertising district on Market St. between 7th Street and 13th Street. He said it won’t change any rules elsewhere in the city, unless another similar district is created.

And even within those boundaries, DiCicco said, he’s not looking to create a “billboard boulevard.” In a letter sent to concerned citizens who contacted him about the proposal, he points to language in the legislation that requires signs to be 300 feet apart, and 500 feet away from a residential area, among other restrictions.

Tracy has concerns that Market East would have far too many signs, including building wraps, that would be unrelated to commerce going on nearby. She worries that this would wreck the ambiance of a corridor that links significant Philadelphia landmarks, such as City Hall and Constitution Hall and the other historical sites.

But SCRUB’s biggest fear is that the bill would have a huge impact all over the city because as written, it would eliminate the legislative findings – basically, the specific reasons why the ordinance places limits on signs. SCRUB has used the city’s law to fight billboard issues for decades, Tracy said, and it is the legislative findings that make that possible. Without the findings, she said, the city is imposing controls that limit free speech, which would violate the constitution.

“We can’t remove the legislative findings that give the city its police power,” Tracy said.

Greenberger said his office hadn’t looked at the legislative findings issue yet, so he wasn’t certain whether that posed a problem or not.

Tracy said she has no problem with careful changes to the sign rules for Market Street East, but she believes that rather than amending this proposed ordinance, DiCicco should start over. She is hoping for a large-scale public process, similar to the one held in the 1990s that gave rise to the current legislation, she said.

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